Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Discontent with the Arab Spring

Greetings from the Australian National University, in Canberra, where Professor Nazif Shahrani of Indiana University is speaking on "Why is the Arab Spring turning to the season of Arab discontent?". Professor
Shahrani suggested that an examination of what went wrong in Afghanistan could be applied to other Islamic nations. He mentioned the role of "professional demonstrators", but I was not sure what is meant by this. Ba'athism was mentioned as a preceding revolution. He pointed to the large numbers of protesters who occupied streets and squares in the Arab Spring. He asked why these protesters then called on the military to take control.

But I was not clear as to how  Professor Shahrani could know what the population of Egypt wanted. The idea of the state security apparatus taking over government in a crisis is not that unusual. Even in Australia there is provision for a state of emergency, with provision of the police and army to issue orders.

Professor Shahrani argued that a tradition of kingship has a tradition in the Islamic world. Under this approach "winner takes all" with a ruler and their family and associates controlling the security forces. However, I can think of other countries with other state religions and secular states with autocratic governments.

Professor Shahrani argues that the regimes dehumanize opponents, to the point where political opponents are considered non-people. But this would seem to be the stock and trade of politics. As an example, the Australian Minister for Immigration has directed his department to refer to asylum seekers with the prefix "illegal", even though this is contrary to Australian law (which says that everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a court). The new Australian Government has continued the practice of the previous ALP government of placing asylum seekers in remote detention centres, to prevent the media having access to detainees, so as to de-humanise them and limit public sympathy.

Professor Shahrani argued that religion doesn't form a basis for behavior in Egypt currently, but is being used used to justify military control. While less extreme, I suggest the same is seen in western democracies. Military ceremonies frequently feature a religious element. Even secular states co-opt the forms of religious ceremony.

Professor Shahrani claimed that the Egyptian army depended on US funds and this is now supplemented by the Gulf states. He argued that the source of the funds did not matter, just the fact of the subsidy. However, I suggest that large aid givers are likely to have an influence on the recipient. Provision of aid is not necessarily a reliable way to control a country, with some changing from block to block, to with their own agenda.

Professor Shahrani argued a destruction of the old political system was needed with the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood took over the existing political system, with vested interests, particularly the army. However, I suggest Indonesia is an example of a country where the military had a central role written into the constitution and significant business interests, but where there has been a relatively stable transition to democracy. Turkey also has a military which has had significant political power, alongside an elected government.

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